Although a recent USA Today article revealed that college students are volunteering less, students at many schools are rebelling against this trend by dedicating themselves to the practice of fair trade through their campus bookstores.
Following the example of more than 450 schools, Villanova University is currently in the process of incorporating Alta Gracia apparel into its bookstore, thanks in part to a student-led movement. While Villanova’s bookstore was already looking into Alta Gracia, students began promoting the adoption of the “living wage” apparel after workers from the factory came to Villanova to speak about their experiences in September.
The campaign truly kicked off in January, when students created a Facebook group and petition and began holding meetings, speaking to classes and contacting other student organizations. Students are hoping Villanova will begin selling the apparel sometime this semester.
“[A]s college students, we have such a strong voice as apparel companies’ biggest market for their products,” says Christofer Nicoletta, a junior environmental studies major who is among the students leading Villanova’s campaign. “If we support Alta Gracia and show that not only are these the standards that we demand, but also that it is possible for such a small company to survive with such conditions, then it is very possible for companies like Nike to do the same.”
According to Rachel Taber, Alta Gracia’s community education coordinator, “Alta Gracia exists because of more than a decade of workers and students organizing together for better conditions in the garment industry.”
The company was founded in 2010, born from a partnership between United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), an organization established in 1997 and Knights Apparel, the top supplier of college apparel. The Alta Gracia factory is located in Villa Altagracia in the Dominican Republic, a village which suffered economic devastation when its BJ&B apparel factory was shut down after its workers unionized to demand better treatment.
“Knights Apparel… saw the students’ passion in organizing and realized that there was an untapped market — students who would mobilize against workers rights abuses would rally behind a brand that embraced workers’ rights,” says Taber.
Alta Gracia worked with the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC) to formulate revolutionary labor standards, which include a commitment to pay its workers a living wage, respect workers’ rights and allow WRC to monitor and enforce the company’s compliance with these ideals.
According to the Alta Gracia website, “[t]he concept of a living wage is straightforward: it means paying workers enough so that they can provide their families with food, clean water, clothing, housing, energy, transportation, child care, education and health care.”
This translates to more than three times the minimum wage in the Dominican Republic, which is only $0.84 an hour compared to the living wage of $2.83 an hour. The factory currently employs 135 people, with potential for growth increasing with demand. Although Alta Gracia pays its employees more, its apparel prices are about the same as other companies’.
“All bookstores that dedicate a fair amount of space to it, reliably stock it and place signs in the store educating consumers about it have seen promising sales,” says Taber, and reports that many colleges have been extremely successful in sales: Duke has sold over $500,000 worth of Alta Gracia apparel, while UCLA and NYU have each sold more than $200,000 worth.
“Alta Gracia doesn’t cost anymore to carry in the store, so why not order it?” says Melissa Madden, a junior math and sociology major at Villanova who visited the Alta Gracia factory in January as part of a trade justice delegation with USAS and United Students for Fair Trade. She urges that “this movement is not about feeling guilty, because it’s not our fault. It’s about feeling empowered to change.”
Nicoletta agrees: “Hopefully it will be a solid beginning of students voicing their concern for such issues and seeing themselves as integrally connected to these issues as both part of the problem and the solution. I hope it can begin to instill a sense of ethical consumerism in students, and that people start asking where their products are coming from and what conditions they are being made in. And I hope people begin to see how much of a direct impact they can have with their purchasing power, both positively and negatively, depending on what they choose to buy.”
Madden, Nicoletta and Taber all urge interested students to reach out to their schools’ administrations and seek help from students at other Alta Gracia universities to bring the apparel to their own campuses.
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